Phrases you shouldn’t say to a partner

Relationship Health

Having a fight? “You’re overreacting” will only make it worse.

Couples’ counselors will witness their sessions devolve into an argument often as a result of a simple phrase. ‘I never said that,’ for example, ensures an hour-long (and perhaps into the drive home and the coming week), debate on what the person did or did not say.

Here’s a quick list of phrases that couples should avoid saying, why we should avoid them, and what to say instead:


“You always …” and “You never …” These terms are often exaggerations, and they don’t acknowledge any effort the listening partner is trying to make. They then become defensive, and the interaction turns into a full-blown argument instead of a problem-solving conversation.

Instead of delving into the past, make an effort to stay in the present. Rehashing history can be unproductive. Focusing on the problem at hand moves the conversation forward. You might say, ‘I’m noticing that you’re not helping to pick up after the kids; here’s why it’s bothering me.’


“Yes, but…” One person will voice a concern, and the other appears to agree — then adds a caveat. “You were 10 minutes late,” one person might say. The other might respond, “Yes, but you were late last week.”

Using the word “but” implies that it was kind of perfunctory to honor the complaint or concern, however, validation or understanding is still withheldpassive aggressively.

Instead of mounting a defense, reflect your partner’s words and feelings. Try saying something like, “What I’m hearing you say is…”


“You should be more like…” One partner suggests the other should be or act like another person. For example, ‘We don't do anything anymoreyour friend John takes his wife on a date three times a month.’

Comparing your partner with someone else is not a great strategy. Playing the comparison game can lead to jealousy. It can breed a lot of issues with self-image, self-confidence, and self-esteem within a relationship.

‘This was never an issue in my other relationships,’ is essentially a verbal bomb.

Comparing your partner with someone else chips away at the trust and security that you have with them. It sends the message that they are the cause of the problem in the relationship.

Keep other people out of it and concentrate on talking about your own needs. This is a more vulnerable and accountable position and much more productive.


“You’re overreacting.” One person acts like the arbiter of emotional responses. Often, this phrase is used to bypass accountability.

One person does not get to determine which reactions are appropriate.

Instead of judging, you can say, ‘OK, I’m listening. Tell me more. Help me understand what you’re having a hard time with.’

“Calm down.” Urging your partner to take it easy almost always has the opposite effect. It’s like throwing gasoline to a flame.

“You’re crazy.” If one partner is agitated, this phrase will simply escalate the furor.

It may be necessary to take a short break from the interaction before attempting to go further.

Then, with a cooler head, asking “What do you need right now?” Perhaps, being heard or hugged might be required.

“It’s not that big of a deal.” When you say that one of your partner’s concerns is not serious, it’s belittling and inaccurate. It is impossible to measure how something feels to someone else. They have their own frame of reference.

Instead, acknowledge that you have different perspectives. Then ask your partner to help you understand why an issue is important, and offer whatever support you can give.

Closing thought

Sometimes humor can defuse a tense situation. An odd couple, one neat and the other not so much, will have many moments when a sock on the floor or unwashed dish on the kitchen counter may send one partner into a fit. Instead of saying, “You always…,” try lightheartedly saying, “You are killing me.” It breaks the tension, you get to express your grievance, while inviting the not-so-tidy partner to notice their impact.

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